I hightailed it down to Asheville a few weeks ago to catch up on lost time. I hadn’t seen Heather Spencer or Charles Murray for a few years. I have watched their garden grow, off and on, for at least 35 years. It never looked better than it did on this short visit.

Charles Murray and Heather Spencer drive away from Holbrook Farm with a load of plants in 1990


There is much to catch up on whenever we are together. We tell stories, gossip, laugh, obsess over plants and worry about the future of our gardens.

We are neither dull nor naïve, but we have reached our twilight.

Why are we planting, thinning out, pruning, weeding, dead heading, and dragging hoses around more madly than ever?

Heather and Rose Cooper in 2003

Conversations come around to wondering whether we are deluding ourselves.

This gardening season was markedly earlier than usual. An extraordinary “flash freeze” sent the temperature plummeting from 50F (10 C) to below zero (-20 C) within hours near Christmas. Many evergreens, both broadleaf and needleleaf, were defoliated, but most are slowly recovering.

One of the driest but mildest early springs followed.

Throw the havoc of unpredictable climate change into the mix with aging bodies and doctor appointments and, you might ask, how can gardening be so compelling still?

Joy of place

Blooming red opium poppies, yellow foxgloves, nicotianas and an old wheelbarrow tree.

Opium poppy seed pods

Digitalis grandiflora

The wheelbarrow tree in 2007

The poppies, yellow foxgloves and flowering tobacco are self-sowers. The old cigar tree (Catalpa bignoniodes) fell down a few years ago and is lying prone now, a quirky reminder of the past and future. The wheelbarrows are rusting steadily. So are we.

The wheelbarrow tree in early June

Heather and Charles, both retired doctors, have been planting their gardens and woodlands since 1986.  I first met them as customers at my Holbrook Farm and Nursery in nearby Fletcher, NC. You don’t forget you favorite customers. They loaded up their Chrysler Sebring convertible full of my plants, more times than I can remember.

Charles and Heather in 2006

My 14’ x 32’ propagation house, first built in 1981, was adopted by Heather and Charles in 1995 when I closed the nursery. They have birthed thousands more plants here—seedlings, cuttings and grafted Japanese maples (Charles is an expert). They are cradled, weaned, and planted out all around their 16 acres.

The title greenhouse in 2006

I saw many of these plants on my recent visit. I had grown some of them at Holbrook Farm. It was a joyous reunion. I had long ago lost the easy-to grow Arabis procurrens, a sweet little rock garden plant, tolerant of heat and humidity. Evergreen patches were everywhere.

Heather gave me the green light.

I dug a few pieces.

I also took divisions of the tiny, thumb-sized Solomon’s seal (Polgyonatum humile) that had previously been little more than slug bait at Holbrook Farm. Theirs looked perfect. Mine got hit with a one-two punch the following week. Leaves were perforated by slugs, and the little Solomon’s seal was knocked out days later by rabbits. (Well, one rabbit. There wasn’t enough for two to chew on.)

Heather pointed to a yellowwood (Cladrastis kentuckea) that had left my nursery, in a convertible with the top down, as a three-foot whip in 1988 and is now close to 50 feet tall. It had been a big bloom year for yellowwoods. Fragrant, hanging white “wisteria-like” flowers abounded.

I felt like a proud parent who had raised a child with unstinting devotion, and was now seated, and smiling, in the front row on graduation day.

At moments like these, the brain goes funny and there is only happiness.